Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Charles Dickens' 1844 Copyright Suit

(Cross-posted from my new blog law.arts.culture)

In January 1844, Charles Dickens launched a copyright suit in the Court of Chancery against printers and publishers Richard Egan Lee and John Haddock.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol had been published on December 19, 1843, and not quite three weeks later, on January 6th, Lee & Haddock’s version, “re-originated” by Henry Hewitt, had appeared for sale under the title A Christmas Ghost Story. An outraged Dickens instructed his solicitor to “stop the Vagabonds” at once. Over a whirlwind three days, his bill of complaint was filed, and an interim injunction sought and obtained.

Dickens was known to be an advocate of copyright, having caused quite a stir during his 1842 visit to the U.S. with speeches agitating for an international agreement. But despite having been a frequent victim of domestic piracy, he had never before taken legal action to enforce the copyright protection available to him at home.

Why, then, did he act with such alacrity in January 1844? Perhaps because his hopes for A Christmas Carol were so high. Dickens had attained enormous success by this time, but his fortunes appeared to be on the wane. Critics had not been enthusiastic about his most recent books, and sales had dropped so precipitously that his publishers were poised to invoke a contractual clause that entitled them to reduce their payments to him accordingly. Indeed, their faith in the marketability of his work had soured to the extent that they rejected A Christmas Carol. Dickens had to self-publish, taking all of the responsibility and the risks upon himself. But he did not hesitate to do so, so convinced was he that the book would revive his critical status and earn him a quick profit as well.

Dickens’ confidence proved well founded. The reviews were raves; even William Thackeray, usually his harshest critic, had nothing negative to say, pronouncing A Christmas Carol to be "a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness." The book went through three printings in two weeks, with 15,000 copies sold in that space of time ⎯extraordinary numbers given the steep price of 5 shillings charged for each lavishly produced volume. But that lavishness, particularly the inclusion of colour plates, rendered the profit margin very slim, so runaway success though it was, many more copies would have to be sold before Dickens could pocket the “thousand pounds clear” on which he had set his heart.

Thus Dickens’ concern over the potential undercutting of sales by Lee & Haddock’s penny edition was understandable. But if bringing suit against them was initially a business decision, the affidavits they filed in support of their motion to dissolve the interim injunction transformed it into a matter of personal honour.

Lee & Haddock maintained that A Christmas Ghost Story was not simply a copy of A Christmas Carol, but a considerable improvement upon it, and hence an original work. Henry Hewitt had, it was averred, “tastefully remedied” the “defects and inconsistencies” in Dickens’ work, and supplemented it with “a more artistical style of expression” and “large original additions.” For example, Lee pointed out, where Dickens had made only a brief mention of Tiny Tim singing a song about a child lost in the snow, Hewitt had penned an original song of sixty lines that was “replete with pathos and poetry.” They went further to allege that Dickens was in fact indebted to Hewitt, having obtained “the germs of many of his works” from the “hints” and “criticisms” contained in Hewitt’s earlier re-originations of The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, both also procured, published and sold by Lee & Haddock. Finally, Hewitt himself claimed that Dickens owed more “to the works of an author named Washington Irving for the material of his Christmas Carol” than Hewitt did to Dickens for his Christmas Ghost Story.

Judge Knight Bruce, before whom the motion to dissolve the interim injunction was heard on January 18th, was not convinced. He opined: “The defendant has printed and published a novel, of which the fable, the persons, the names of persons, the characters, the age and time, and scene and country, are wholly the same. The style of language in which the story is told is in some instances identical, and in all similar.” He concluded that, in his view, the defendants’ publication was “plainly colourable,” and, on that basis, he upheld the injunction.

Dickens was ebullient, declaring: “The pirates are beaten flat. They are bruised, bloody, battered, smashed, squelched, and utterly undone.” Of course, these were only preliminary motions. For a final resolution from the courts, Dickens would have to bring the matter to trial. But given the decisiveness of the judge’s rejection of the defendants’ arguments, Dickens suspected that a trial would not be necessary, and so it proved. After some hedging, the defendants accepted Dickens’ terms, agreeing to apologize for their affidavits and to pay all of Dickens’ costs.

Alas for Dickens, it did not end there. Lee & Haddock promptly declared bankruptcy, thereby evading their obligation to pay his costs and leaving him on the hook for a substantial sum. In the end, Dickens’ costs swallowed nearly all the profits that A Christmas Carol had generated, leaving him feeling much scarred by the experience. Some years later, when it was suggested that he take action against another instance of piracy, Dickens recalled “the expense, and anxiety and horrible injustice of the Carol case,” and declined to proceed. He concluded that “it is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law.”

If Dickens obtained neither justice nor financial recompense from his foray into the Court of Chancery, the experience did provide direct inspiration for one of his finest novels, Bleak House. For that, I can’t help but think it was worth every bit of “the mental trouble and disturbance” he had to endure.


Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853).

E.T. Jaques, Charles Dickens in Chancery (1914).

Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits (2008).

Kathleen Tillotson, ed., The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 4 1844-1846 (1977).

* The above illustration is The Court of Chancery, drawn by Augustus Charles Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson for Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-11).